When the modern private rental market was devised as part of the 1988 Housing Act, flexibility was the theme. If a landlord decided they no longer wanted to be a landlord, then they could use Section 21 of the Act to evict their tenants with two months’ notice, with no reason necessary, and cash in their investment.
In theory, this was balanced by flexibility for the tenant too – they could move out with minimal notice as well. But the Act failed to acknowledge the enormous power imbalance between landlord and tenant. If your tenant ends the tenancy, your business now needs to find a new customer. If your landlord ends the tenancy, you need to find a new home.
According to the latest English Housing Survey, 271,000 private renter households were asked to leave by their landlord in the past three years.
Whether we make the decision or not, moving house fills few of us with joy. Some landlords abuse our reluctance to attend a dispiriting series of flat viewings, then pack everything we own into boxes and haul them across town, by evicting tenants who make a fuss. The threat of a retaliatory eviction discourages tenants from complaining and results in a tenure where the EHS found 28 per cent of homes failed decency tests.
The power imbalance is so wide that when the Conservatives stopped thinking of housing simply in terms of home ownership and started making moves to improve renting, revenge evictions were the first thing they agreed to outlaw.
But the protections for tenants under the resulting Deregulation Act 2015 came with heavy caveats. First, the landlord must be doing something illegal – namely letting out a property which contains serious hazards. Second, the local council must serve an improvement notice on the landlord before the tenant gets protection from a no-fault eviction. Third, that protection lapses after six months. Finally, a landlord can get around all of that by just putting the rent up so high the tenant is forced to move.
Now it appears that few tenants are getting the protection they’re entitled to. We looked at Freedom of Information data gathered from the 100 councils with the largest private renter populations – approximately two-thirds of the total in England – and published our findings last month.
Of the 72 councils that recorded “Category 1” hazards in 2016-17 (28 didn’t), a total of 12,962 were found. Yet the councils only took appropriate enforcement action in 2366 cases – meaning that just 18 per cent of tenants had protection from a revenge eviction. Only eight councils in total issued as many improvement notices as hazards they identified. And just four councils recorded cases where a Section 21 eviction notice was served on tenants who’d complained.
It is no secret that local councils are strapped for cash, which might explain why there is so much poor practice. But tenants should not have to live in the right town to have the confidence to complain. A flaky, fiddly and temporary system of protection is not enough to deliver safe and secure homes.
That is one of many reasons why Generation Rent is campaigning alongside the London Renters Union, ACORN and the New Economics Foundation to abolish Section 21.
Last week the government published its long-awaited consultation on longer tenancies. It proposes to replace the 1988 model with three-year tenancies, retaining the ability of the tenant to move out after six months. But the government has undermined this progress by letting amateur landlords keep their flexibility, allowing them to take back a property in the three years if they want to sell or move back in. According to last year’s EHS, 63 per cent of private sector evictions take place for these reasons.
A three-year tenancy with limited grounds for eviction should at least give tenants greater confidence to complain. But that’s not enough. They should also have the knowledge that, so long as they meet their legal obligations, the home is theirs. If landlords can evict a blameless tenant, the rental market will keep failing to provide the certainty we associate with home.
Ending Section 21 would still allow evictions if a tenant breaks the contract. If a landlord wants to sell, that’s fine, but they should sell to another landlord, with the tenants staying put – or to the tenants themselves. If they want somewhere to live, they can rent.
The government’s consultation is a huge opportunity to make renting a genuine alternative to owner occupation. The EHS reports that 2.7m private renter households expect to buy eventually – yet fewer than 1m have more than £5000 in savings towards a deposit. That leaves a lot of people who will be denied the stability they crave for years to come. By abolishing Section 21 the government would give renters a stable home now.
Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.